By Allison Hart
Various estimates put the annual cost of hospital readmissions in the tens of billions of dollars. Many of the readmissions that occur in the U.S. each year are avoidable, and hospitals have been taking steps in recent years to reduce readmissions whenever possible. Unfortunately, a lot of unnecessary financial burden still exists as a result of preventable readmissions. To combat readmissions and related costs, some healthcare professionals are turning their focus toward patient engagement. In fact, a recent survey by West shows that healthcare providers feel more communication is the key to better care, so they are increasing outreach and engagement efforts. This is positive news, because patient engagement offers several opportunities for improving clinical outcomes and reducing care costs.
The 30-day window after a patient has been discharged from the hospital is known for being a period of vulnerability. Half (50 percent) of the acute care professionals West surveyed said they believe that a lack of follow up by hospitals during this time is a leading factor that contributes to readmissions. Another 32 percent said that insufficient communication after discharge is at least partly to blame for readmissions.
It is not just providers that feel inadequate communication is a problem. Patient feedback collected through Medicare’s HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) confirms that patients who have been hospitalized want to see more and better communication post-discharge, with half of patients saying they felt confused about some part of their care instructions after leaving the hospital.
Because many things can go wrong in the days and weeks after a patient has been discharged, medical professionals need to connect with patients in order to monitor their health and proactively address issues before they escalate into larger problems that cause patients to be readmitted.
As hospitals work to implement strategies that will help drive down readmission rates, a large majority are working to improve communication and patient engagement in the days following discharge. A whopping 95 percent of hospitals and health systems are now using engagement communications in an attempt to avoid hospital readmissions, according to West’s survey findings.
Engagement communications come in various forms. An automated survey that asks patients to confirm whether they have picked up prescriptions or if they are experiencing pain is one example. A message to clarify care instructions and remind patients to follow prescribed self-care is another. And a notification about an upcoming appointment is yet another example of how providers can deliver value to patients and positively impact health outcomes in ways that reduce readmissions.
Of course, efforts to engage patients through technology-enabled communication not only affect clinical outcomes, they also greatly impact financial outcomes for hospitals and health systems. Readmissions are costly for hospitals. Costs incurred by hospitals for treating readmitted patients, combined with financial penalties from programs like Medicare’s Hospital Readmission Reduction Program, offer plenty of motivation to do more to prevent avoidable readmissions. Around half of the hospitals in the United States are currently being penalized for excessive readmissions. During the 12 months between October 2016 and September 2017, more than half a billion dollars in payments with be withheld from hospitals by Medicare as a result of readmissions. The ability to reduce financial stress through patient engagement cannot be overlooked.
Hospitals and health systems that want to improve patient engagement may wonder how to do so in a cost-effective way. After all, reaching out to every single patient that is discharged, monitoring their progress, and resolving their issues sounds like it requires a lot of resources and can feel intimidating. While it is true that nine out of ten hospitals say they are using engagement communications post-discharge, the number of medical teams reaching out to every patient is much lower. A common strategy is to only reach out to some patients – those that are sickest. Identifying high-risk patients and providing them with additional support is not a bad plan. But it should not be the only plan.
A lot of hospitals already have technology in place that gives them the ability to send automated messages to patients. By leveraging existing technology, hospitals can easily conduct outreach to engage all patients after discharge. Making a commitment to consistent outreach, and then following up with discharged patients within 48 hours of their transition out of the hospital, is a first step toward engaging patients. Plus, it can be done with minimal effort. When hospitals send automated post-discharge communications to monitor health, they can ask probing questions that will give them insights into what additional support patients need so that readmittance can be avoided whenever possible.
The important thing for hospitals and health systems to realize is that engagement does have an impact on readmissions, and increasing engagement is not a difficult or expensive undertaking.
Allison Hart is a regularly-published advocate for utilizing technology-enabled communications to engage and activate patients beyond the clinical setting. She leads thought leadership efforts for West’s TeleVox Solutions, promoting the idea that engaging with patients between healthcare appointments in meaningful ways will encourage and inspire them to follow and embrace treatment plans – and that activating these positive behaviors ultimately leads to better outcomes for both healthcare organizations and patients. Hart currently serves as Vice President of Marketing for TeleVox Solutions at West (www.west.com), where the healthcare mission is to help organizations harness communications to expand the boundaries of where, when, and how healthcare is delivered.